President Obama is casting his lot in the middle of a debate as old as America itself: Are we rugged individualists pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps? Or are we a nation of community, all connected and counting on one another?
The answer is both, Obama says, and he's right. "Don't Tread on Me" and "It Takes a Village" are two conflicting themes deeply embedded in the American DNA, and they're rearing their oxymoronic heads in the budget fight.
One side of the American psyche wants smaller government, lower taxes, and more choices for individuals, even if those choices increase risk. The other wants a strong social safety net to protect the weakest among us, even if it costs more to minimize risk.
To some degree, most voters fall into both camps. Successful presidents pay homage to both values, though rarely simultaneously as Obama is trying to do now. No wonder he often seems tortured by indecision.
"Obama is walking a fine and dangerous line," said Peter Hanson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver. "The best way to appeal to the broadest number of Americans is to make a case that resonates with libertarians, who don't think government should be in American life, and with progressives, who see government as a cure-all."
One narrative of the 2012 campaign will be Obama's efforts to pivot from the political left and appeal to independent voters, who ran screaming from the president's party in the 2010 elections. Oh, if it were so easy. He has a far bigger job of convincing voters not just that he's worthy of reelection, but that their country is still capable of balancing individualism and community.
"The America I know is generous and compassionate; a land of opportunity and optimism," Obama said on Wednesday as he outlined his vision of a deficit-reduction plan. "We take responsibility for ourselves and each other; for the country we want and the future we share."
Though short on details, his address at George Washington University was loaded with nods to those competing values. On one hand, he warned Republicans not to dig in against raising taxes on the wealthy as one way to reduce the deficit. "I believe that most wealthy Americans would agree with me," Obama said. "They want to give back to the country that's done so much for them. Washington just hasn't ask them to."
On the other hand, he urged fellow Democrats to be open to cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. "If we truly believe in a progressive vision of our society, we have an obligation to prove that we can afford our commitments," Obama said, channeling the last Democrat who held his office, Bill Clinton. "If we believe that government can make a difference in people's lives, we have the obligation to prove that it works, by making government smarter, leaner, and more effective."
Powerful rhetoric. The question is whether voters, particularly independents, believe that Obama truly values personal liberty and responsibility as much as the government-bought safety net. "Obama doesn't have credibility on this issue," said GOP consultant John Feehery.
Indeed, Obama risks his man-in-the-middle appeal when he ventures into partisan waters as he did on Wednesday, saying the GOP deficit-reduction plan would create a "fundamentally different America." He implied that in a GOP nation, roads would crumble, bridges would collapse, and Chinese children would outpace those in the United States. "The fact is," Obama said of Republicans, "their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America."
At his best, Obama promised to work with Republicans to reduce the deficit in a way that honors both individualism and community. "We as a people," he said, echoing the founders, "do this together, no matter the color of the state one comes from or the side of the aisle one might sit on."
He noted that Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush crossed the partisan divide to reduce the nation's deficit three times in the 1990s. "All three agreements asked for shared responsibility and shared sacrifice, but they largely protected the middle class, our commitments to seniors, and key investments in our future," he said. Later in the address Obama mentioned that President Reagan worked with Democratic leaders to protect Social Security.
But he also could have mentioned that Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and other iconic American leaders called on voters to be responsible for themselves and for one another. It can be done. It must be done. And it starts at the top.